By Chad Knudson
Dawson Community College faces a serious threat from collapsing enrollment and unrealistic budget assumptions.
Deputy Commissioner for Two-Year and Community College Education John Cech offered the Board of Trustees what he called a “frank” assessment of the condition of the college last week.
“The regents and the commissioner [of higher education] have several concerns,” he said, adding these concerns were shared with President Jim Cargill at the Board of Regents meeting Sept. 19-20 in Butte.
Primary among the issues is the disconnect between budget projections for full-time-equivalent resident students and actual enrollment.
“Last year the amount presented [in the budget] was 380, so obviously at 274 you came in quite a bit below the 380,” he said. “The concern is budgeting 350 (for the current school year).... We’ve heard that your projected annualized FTE this year could be as low as 225.”
As Cech pointed out, 225 is an 18 percent decline from last year, which was a 16.3 percent decline from the year before.
“From [fiscal year] ‘02 to FY ‘12 there has been a 29.5 percent decline,” he said. “I have been asked by the commissioner to communicate that we are frankly concerned about the future of your college and we’re concerned about the sustainability of the college given the trend that has been taking place with enrollment.”
DCC President Jim Cargill said in response he thought maybe the regents didn’t understand.
“There are a lot of new regents there and I don’t think they understand how community colleges are funded in Montana,” he said. “We come up with a budget and if we come up with more students than that we don’t get any more money. But if we get less students than that, we pay the money back. We are production funded. We will only get funded for the number of students we actually have.”
Cech said that was not a factor.
“President Cargill I understand that, and I believe they do,” he said. “Going back to the original statement, I think we are concerned about the sustainability of the college.”
Cech also said the regents were concerned about strategy.
“When Commissioner Christian asked the question, ‘what is the plan for Dawson Community College to address the dynamics which are taking place in Eastern Montana?’ the commissioner, chairwoman McLean and members of the board were just concerned they didn’t hear a compelling vision for what you are going to do,” he said.
In an interview Tuesday, Chairman of the Board Jim Squires said he had heard from Cech before the meeting.
“It didn’t hit us cold ... and it was a concern and in part precipitated the executive session,” he said. “But everything was discussed in the open and according to the law.”
As the deputy-commissioner’s remarks were discussed, Trustee Kim Stulc asked whether Miles Community College faced the same challenges as DCC.
“The colleges in Eastern Montana have been dealing with similar issues, so yes there are some concerns there as well,” he said. “Their issues are not as precipitous.”
Cech’s comments also carried some recommendations.
“I think what you have before you is an opportunity to rethink your business model and to rethink how you’re going to go about responding to and serving the changing economy,” he said. “Things that may involve significant workforce training, non-credit types of things, stackable credentials. In this economy people are wanting to get some key skills that help them pursue a job.”
He pointed out that Williston State College has registered 10,000 participants and generated $2.5 million through its workforce training initiative.
More specifically, Cech said the college should look at how it is offering classes. He said a traditional offering of classes on a two semester basis with a summer term may not be sufficient.
“Maybe offer classes in eight week segments. More intensified classes so you are reaching to respond to a need as a result of the development that’s taking place in Eastern Montana,” he said. “Can you package a certificate? Can you package a credential? Can you package a set of skills in a way that is intense and enable the person to exit ... in a shorter time and go to work?”
Dean of Administrative Services Justin Cross said there are major differences between the two states.
“Foreseeing the development in the oil field of Northwestern North Dakota, the state pushed resources to both Williston and Dickinson to enhance success at those colleges,” he said. “We don’t see that in Eastern Montana.”
Squires said as other two-year schools in Montana are moving from technical colleges to something else, Dawson seems to be moving to the technical side to meet the community’s needs. Trustee Linn agreed.
“I just see continual talk that to me seems like talk toward a technical college and not a community college,” Linn said. “It seems to me the deputy commissioner is talking about half and half. You still want to offer that community college option, but really what you need to be offering is more in line with a technical college.”
Commissioner Cech said the process of adjusting the business model includes rebalancing the five elements the Board of Regents has identified for two-year colleges.
Those are, university transfer, workforce development, developmental education, lifelong learning and community development, he said.
“As a community college part of your mission is to be responsive and really change as your community is changing,” he said. “The proportion of some of those five elements may change as your part of Eastern Montana changes over the next 10-20 years.”
Cargill said he hopes to weather the storm.
“We’re experiencing a downturn, but I’m optimistic we’ll come back,” he said. “The population of Glendive is growing, the enrollment in the younger grades is growing. We just have to keep our enrollment steady and wait for better times.”
Cech met with Cargill in Glendive Tuesday and said Commissioner Christian will be visiting Glendive in the next few weeks.
Published October 3, 2012